Good move: Game company takes down cruel ad campaign

By Anne Collier

This was good to see: What looked like a truly anti-social media company, game developer Square Enix, saw irresponsibility for what it was and quickly reversed a stupid marketing decision. I’d like to take it as a sign that – in this very social media environment where users are co-producers with the providers of their media experiences – media companies and users alike will be increasingly wise to the power that users have just by the nature of social media. [My definition of an anti-social media company is one that fails to treat its users as partners in the social experiences they’re co-creating with it. But I wonder how sustainable such a company’s practices are, because of the transparency and user-driven nature of social media and what those say about where control ultimately lies (something users haven’t completely wakened up to yet) – more on that here.]

Anyway, the decision Square Enix decided to reverse was to advertise its game Hitman: Absolution with a campaign that started with an email which “literally [said] ‘Square Enix Wants You to Put a Hit on Your Friends!’,” reported Geekdad at Wired. The email instructed players to go to Facebook and use an app that would help them insult and send death threats ostensibly to other players. Only one of the problems with that is that non-players and people who’d never heard of this videogame could’ve gotten those cruel messages. Maybe some of us get the sort of dark reverse psychology that cruel in-game behavior on display outside the game pulls some people into the “fold,” but non-gamers don’t. And many younger recipients of such messages would likely be non-gamers, since the game’s about as “M” as an M-rated game could be (M for “Mature” because of the gore, violence, sexuality and substance abuse it depicts, according to the game raters at ESRB). Maybe Square Enix got that the timing, with online and offline bullying of high concern in our society, was really bad. Maybe the company even got that a lot of people (e.g., those who hadn’t heard of the game) could get hurt, but I hope it even got that the campaign was modeling as well as enabling social aggression.

“The defense of this, if there is any,” writes GeekDad Curtis Silver, who said he’d enjoyed other games in the Hitman franchise but wasn’t going to buy this one because of the campaign, “is that gamers tag each other with dirty jokes and insults all the time, so it must be okay to send such an insult through Facebook. But what if you send it to someone who doesn’t play video games? Is it still just for laughs?”

This is great material for helping kids understand context and perspective – to think about how someone broadsided with a cruel inside “joke” might feel and what they might do to help. It’s also a good reason for gamers to talk about what they think of the in-game chat they participate in and whether – if they don’t actually enjoy it much or don’t feel it’s appropriate – they could think of something to do about that when playing games. Talking about the abortive ad campaign is also an opportunity to learn from gamers in our lives about whether in-game chat changes from game to game or how playing different games make them feel. And of course it’s an opportunity to talk about marketers’ tactics. For example, Silver writes that ad agencies serving game companies “sometimes dig deep in their pockets to create campaigns that transcend traditional advertising; they immerse the subject in advertising that asks you to play along.” Good to know. And great fodder for thinking out loud together about whether success can ever come from immersing people in or promoting social cruelty.

Related links

* But there’s also a lot of good society – and even safety and youth advocates – can learn from game designers. Some examples here.
* …and lots parents can learn from playing with their kids or observing their kids’ play – see “Why kids love videogames and what parents can do about it”
* However, as I wrote above and a while back, I believe that, due to the nature of the medium, it’s only logical that pro-social media companies will prosper more in the long term, as more and more of their co-producers wake up to their powers, and I think this is logic, not idealism. Exploitation of educated consumers is getting harder, which certainly puts greater and greater onus on education. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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